Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

ISBN: 0716727188
ISBN 13: 9780716727187
By: Robert M. Sapolksy Robert M. Sapolksy

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About this book

A Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and CopingCombining cutting edge research with a healthy dose of humor and practical advice, Sapolsky explains how prolonged stress causes or intensifies mental afflictions.

Reader's Thoughts

Chris Gard

Brilliant book, very insightful on the structures and sequences of stress, stress-responsiveness and consequential diseases and pathology related to socioeconomic status, perception of situations and broad inclusions of outcomes of certain upbringings.Loss of a rating would be to Sapolsky's almost loss of train of thought on a lot of topics, some metaphors are sporadic and unrelated, yet others are almost graceful in their applicability. However, in a lot of instances in his writings, he paints a very clear and concise picture when demonstrating various scenarios depicting stressful situations and the variables of outcomes, from as far as transient stress and it's coinciding joy (or pleasure), to chronic stress and the proceeding disease and mental dysfunctions.It is both humorous and intellectual, and boasts to be an item of utter genius.4/5 would read again.


Let's start with the title. Why don't zebras get ulcers? The answer is that zebras don't sweat the small stuff. When a lion comes to attack a zebra, its body stresses out to the max...salivary glands stop working (you don't need them), food processing and waste control shuts down (again, not required) and all bodily functions are maxed out to assist in one thing: Run like the wind. We humans possess the same capacity. Should you ever find yourself hunted by a lion, your body will probably react like a zebra's right up until your body is lion-feed. But here's the rub: We humans spend a lot of time being worried about less pressing things than outrunning lions (bills to pay, need to clean the house, have to get the kids to school on time, guests coming to dinner), but our bodies react in the only way they know how. And that reaction is a lower level form of the zebra's fight/flight physical response. That's not good. The fight/flight physiological experience is meant to last a few minutes, and come every once in a while, not run ad infinitum. So...zebras don't get ulcers because ulcers are born of the body's reaction to never-ending low level stress that zebras don't experience. Sapolsky examines more than ulcers and it's a fun read. His final chapter on how to help our bodies deal with the modern world contains most of the things you would guess (exercise is critical as is being a part of a community) but that doesn't diminish the chapters leading up to it. If you like this book, Sapolsky also has a class for free in the iTunes University store. I ran a string of two books in a row here on how human bodies are not well-adapted to modern times. Of the two, I would give this book the nod over Lieberman's The Story of the Human Body.


Robert Sapolsky is one of my favorite science writers. I generally find his work engaging, informative, and conversational, and “Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers” is no exception. This book is dense! It is jam packed with information on how your body reacts to and copes with stress. By the end of it, I found my self wondering if there was anything that glucocorticoids couldn't screw up. Though parts of it did drag a bit (for me), on the whole I found the chapters in this book to be interesting and full of useful information. I was a bit disappointed with the last chapter, however. I was hoping for more concrete suggestions on how to deal with and lessen stress. But perhaps that was an impractical expectation on my part. I would recommend this book to anyone who worries about what effect their stressful life might be having on their mind and body. This book will clearly lay out those effects in detail, and knowing what's going on (why you aren't sleeping, why you are gaining weight, for example) is the first step to stopping it.

Theresa Truax-Gischler

I read this book several years ago, and still go back to it periodically. If you ever thought that stress was not a killer, that we are not heavily influenced by our environment and by our responses to it, think again and read this book. Sapolsky’s meticulously detailed research and literature survey on stress is a lovely biology science background to implementing Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approaches to your own life. The structure of our brain, our metabolism, our hormones, our immune system are all incredibly influenced by our surroundings. Put a primate under stressful conditions, and its brain begins to starve. It stops creating new cells. The cells it already has retreat inwards. The mind and body are disfigured.With all the research coming out about the high stress levels of parent caregivers of children and adults with developmental disabilties, autism and behavior problems, this book is a great read. Lots of biological science, but written in an accessible manner. Sapolsky’s sense of humor is a great antidote to his subject.The last chapter on "Managing Stress" is highly useful for parents and caregivers:Tales from the Trenches: Some Folks Who Are Amazing at Dealing with Stress - Successful Aging - Coping with Catastrophic Illness - Difference in Vulnerability to Learned Helplessness - More Stress Management Lessons from the BaboonsApplying Principles of Dealing with Psychological Stress: Some Success StoriesSelf-Medication and Chronic Pain SyndromesIncreasing Control in Nursing HomesStress Management: Reading the Label CarefullyExerciseMeditationGet More Control, More Predictability in Your Life... MaybeSocial SupportReligion and SpiritualityPicking the Right Strategy at the Right Time: Cognitive FlexibilityWhat Was He Going on About with THAT?Just Do It: The 80/20 Quality of Stress ManagementA Summing UpHighly recommended!

Chung Chin

This is a book packed full of information on how stress can cause our body to go haywire. You will find explanation for how stress affects your weight, sleep, and health in general.Although there are still lots of jargon and terms in the book that you will find alien, the explanation is given in the most simple way possible, making it an accessible material in general.However, after reading through all the chapters on how stress can wreak havoc to our body, you don't actually get a lot of materials on how you can counter them.So, this is a book on how stress can cause damage to your body. If you're looking for a solid book on recommendations to deal with stress, this might not be it.To the author's credit, he is trying to be as accurate as possible, and therefore I believe he is trying his best to recommend the most scientifically accurate practice to deal with stress; and sadly, there may not be many, although there is a few practical one such as exercise and meditation.

Charles Gallagher

In Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, acclaimed biologist Robert Sapolsky combines humor and science to deliver fascinating information about stress and the many diseases caused by stress. As far as nonfiction goes, this was the most entertaining and informative book I have read. This book would be great for anyone interested in learning the science behind stress and it's effects on the body while enjoying themselves.

Bob Klein

Sapolsky is an amazing writer and Primate's Memoir ranks as one of my favorite books. That said, the title, cover, and prior experience with Primate's Memoir led me to have unrealistic expectations of this book. It is thorough and well-written, but approaches the topic of stress from a phsyiological perspective that doesn't spare any of the details. As such, it often calmed my stress by putting me to sleep. The subtitle's promise of a section on "coping" with stress didn't pan out, and amounted to a few pages of an attempt at the end of the book. If you're looking for a tutorial on the physiology of stress and its relationship to a wide variety of human ailments and conditions (sickness, age, gender, etc.) then you might like this more than I did.


This is a pretty good book on stress, in animals as well as humans. I like his scientific style (though as with most academics, his prose style could be improved). He has a straight-forward way of presenting complex information without dumbing it down too much (I've been comparing it to an actual endocrinology textbook). The end of the book also provides a much-needed element of perspective on what it really means to be poor in America, discussing why universal health care won't make a huge difference to the health of the poor, for example.

J. Erickson

This is where I really get “geeky” or over the top excited! This is a classic – by that I mean this is a text book that is easy to read, filled with information regarding the brain, autonomic system, fight, flight responses, stress, and it all is easy to read, understand and fits nicely with psychopathology courses I have taught over the years to graduate students. Further, this is one of the only books I've read where the footnotes have note, and these notes are so interesting that I need to make an effort to read the book first, re-read the foot notes and notes, and then took notes to use for teaching. Clearly it's not Dr. Sapolsky's first day on the job! Further, while this is an older version, the enclosed material is still applicable today. Excellent book and highly recommended!


How much fighting-or-fleeing have you had to do lately? For most of us, probably not much. In this very readable but thoroughly researched book, Sapolsky makes the point that a) we need a stress response but b) if you repeatedly turn on your stress response or you can't turn it off when it isn't needed, your response has the potential to increase the risk of disease with measurable effects on memory, and many of our organ systems. The author is self-deprecating and at times really funny, and after the first chapter you'll barely notice the names of all the hormones. I thought there was a fair bit of animal torture going on with all the research (stressing rats and other animals to see what they do) but he is only quoting what has already been done, and he does have the grace to say at one point that he wasn't entirely happy with some of the experiments. The final part of the book is devoted to exploring why some people are good at dealing with stress, finding out what they are doing right, and making suggestions for the rest of us. And you will find out why zebras don't get ulcers, in case that was a burning question.


** spoiler alert ** Jen told me I should check out this book because it was part of her reading for her Masters of Social Work program. Sapolsky is an entertaining and fun author and the book breaks down the scientific and physiological aspects of stress response in a way that is easily understood for people like me who don't know much about the subject. I actually kind of understand neurotransmitters now - I'm dangerous.Something you should know before embarking on this book, though, is that it's mostly 300+ pages of why stress is bad for you, in a lot of detail. During the book Sapolsky often refers to the final chapter in which he will give some tips on what can be done to cope effectively with stress. When you get there, though, it really isn't very empowering. Most of the tips come with caveats and qualifications and frankly the chapter is a drop in the bucket of bad news you've been reading up to that point. So you should just know that going in.


Should be compulsory reading for every high school biology student. A thorough dismantling of the reductionist cell biology mindset of the 20th century, Sapolsky shows you how very complex and intricate the interaction is between organism and environment, and how 'genes' may be overrated in a lot of ways.


I encountered a link to a speech by Sapolsky on Pharyngula, I think, and was immediately engaged by his speaking style. His books, or this one at least, is similarly easy to get into, and manages to discuss topics of fair complexity in an incredibly approachable way. He's clearly aware that his book might be read by a wide range of audiences, and strives to provide something for everyone. I'll definitely be working my way through the rest of his catalog.The book is fascinating, too, although as he notes many times, thinking about and addressing stress is difficult, because trying to act to reduce stress can itself be stressful. As he elucidates what's currently known about the links between stress and disease, a lot of interesting things emerge, some of which are essentially throwaway trivia, like the idea that anti-depressant medication takes a while to work on people that are clinically depressed because of the physiological nature of depression; he doesn't really spell it out, but the obvious corollary is that is someone takes AD medication and instantly feels better, they're probably not actually depressed. This insight was immensely powerful to me in this over-prescribed age of ours.


Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Mr. Sapolsky attacks a very scientific subject with wit and charm. If you're a biologist or anthropologist or like me, just a reader who's interested in finding out more about our bodies and about my disease, multiple sclerosis, you will greatly enjoy this book. I took it in chunks and that was probably the best thing to do but I do recommend it for anyone who's curious about how chronic stress affects the human body.


This was my text for my Health Psychology class. The only complaint I have about this book is that sometimes it is hard to follow because there are no bolded words or explanations on the side, like ANY other book relating to science would have.But it is very funny, very interesting, very well-researched, and very thought-provoking. Sapolsky has a way of explaining complicated concepts in an approachable way. You will learn how to be aware of, be knowledgable about, and better attack the stress in your life!

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